Leading Singapore-based CEO of Consulus consulting firm, Lawrence Chong spoke at the 23 August SPC forum in Melbourne on business practices promoted by the Economy of Communion, a network of over 800 companies worldwide linking companies with community needs. The event was jointly sponsored by the Focolare Movement in Melbourne.
SPC member and Melbourne lawyer Tony French reports.
We “want to link faith with business”, said Lawrence Chong recently of the Economy of Communion Movement (EoC), of which he is a participant and advocate.
An interesting conjunction, I thought, at this seemingly intuitively incompatible set of ideas. Perhaps even unscriptural, suggestive of marrying God off with Mammon, or maybe worse a misconceived Gospel of Prosperity advocated by American Pentecostals.
What possible link could there be between faith and financials. And who is this Lawrence Chong? And what is EoC?
Lawrence was the guest speaker at a joint SPC and Focolare talk entitled A People-Centred Approach for the Economy. A Singaporean business consultant with companies is nine Asian countries, Lawrence had flown in to Melbourne to explain. Faith and business, we were told, may not be incompatible bedfellows after all.
But, first, what is EoC? I had heard of it, an was intrigued by its strange name, in spite of knowing little about its ideas. Economy and Communion – is this just another seemingly anomalous pairing of ideas? ‘Economy of Solidarity’ might have seemed a better name.
Anyway ‘conomy’ is a translation from the ancient Greek word, ‘oikonomia’, meaning household. That’s a handy bit of trivia to know when reminding our economists of their original domesticity. Communion is, well, communality. Combine them together, EoC says, and they promote mutually beneficial housekeeping locally and nationally for all of us. Capitalism, on the other hand, tends to plunder, not promote, mutually beneficial housekeeping.
An initiative of the Focolare Movement
EoC is part of the Focolare movement (‘focolare’ is Italian for hearth or family fireside – yet another translation). I’m now developing the idea of organised small groups, family-like, managing and looking out for each other. They begin as the local counterpoint to the excesses of corporatism and capitalism.
Focolare promotes the socio-economic interests of small groups, particularly with concern for the poor. As such, it illustrates the ideal of the Christian family expressing its confraternity and communality. Without this Christian underpinning, you could be forgiven for thinking EoC resembles a benign form of communism.
Focolare was established by Chiara Lubich in Italy during the ravages of the Second World War. She encouraged people in need to pool their resources and skills, their ‘capital’, as it were, for mutual benefit. In a way, Focolare is a type of cooperative, just to distinguish it from a communist collective.
In 1991, while in Brazil, Chiara sought to widen the horizons of the organisation to include “entrepreneurs, workers, directors, consumers, savers, citizens, scholars, economists, to stimulate a practice and an economic culture imprinted on communion, gratuity, and reciprocity”. A seemingly disparate collection of people, but it was her suggested alternative way to live well within and yet benefit from the capitalist system. It was the beginning of the EoC movement.
The practical heart of EoC is its impetus to encourage inclusiveness in businesses, caring for their workers and communities. As such, it is one expression of promoting the Common Good as understood in Christian social teaching.
According to Lawrence, the need for humane capitalism has never been greater than it is today. These are almost the apocalyptic end of times. Income inequality is obscene and unstoppable. The eight richest people in the world have the combined wealth of 3.6 billion individuals. Any shared sense of humanity has dissipated under the onslaught of globalisation, selfish individualism, wilting corporate regulation, and a resultant culture of receiving, rather than giving. The times are best summed up by ‘I have, therefore I am’.
Yet everyone can give and receive. What is required is a change of mindset, one which does not insist on receiving leading to the contemporary binary inequality of those who have, contrasted starkly with the great number of those who have not.
This is an economic division, one that fails to recognise the contribution the poor can make. Both rich and poor can give and receive, but, first, EoC says there needs to be a culture of giving and receiving. Currently, it’s the poor who are giving and the rich receiving. This unjust imbalance is not conducive to a fair and harmonious world. The house, along with the household, is in danger of collapse.
Renewing business practice
It’s easy to blame this unsatisfactory state of world affairs on bankers or governments, but we all have a shared responsibility. It is ten years since the Global Financial Crisis, and what have we done to improve the world? What is the future for our children, asks Lawrence?
It is not sufficient to rely on philanthropy to redeem the excesses of capitalism tokenistically throwing money at third-world projects. Lawrence calls this the ‘vanity’ of helping the poor. Are Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation, then, merely showing off?
Pope Francis would say it is not sufficient to be a good Samaritan; you need to participate in the prevention of social ills like poverty. A bit rough on the Good Samaritan,l you may think. After all, he was the only one to intervene when many more ignored the social issue before them.
Clearly, we need to act more than we do. We all need to promote mutual assistance, and business is one of the best collective ways of doing this. In fostering its own welfare, business can be encouraged to foster the welfare of others. It can begin in-house by looking out for its workers better than i does. Who are they? What are their backgounds? And business can look outside, as well, to inform itself about its suppliers and customers. What are their stories? Importantly, what can we do for them?
The idea is that business should not be the single-minded pursuit of maximising profits, nor consumption without purpose on the part of its well-paid executives, but instead a real social enterprise with the purpose of doing something mutually useful for its members, its community, and the environment. And, yes, it can make a profit.
A business becomes a collection of ethical individuals with a shared purpose when they agree there should be reduced casualties of capitalism. A company can be a good corporate citizen.
Lawrence has set up his business, Consulus (‘unity’ in Latin), to support Asian companies in reviewing and renewing their business structures along EoC principles. Hence the promotion of communal shared corporate values based on shared understanding of people in client organisations, their suppliers, and their customers.
Recognise, too, that your business exists in a wide community. So what are you doing for that community? What are you doing to support the local community? The principles of EoC give Lawrence’s business marketing novelty and an edge over his competitors.
Businesses building community
The aim of all business should not be to fixedly maximise profit, but instead to shape the world into an improved place by building fair and just business enterprises respectful of social equality. Clearly, high levels of corporate individual integrity are required, but this will follow with mindset change to the point at which unity of purpose is the norm, rather than the aim of profitable corporate conquest.
Lawrence thinks that establishing this perpetuity of proper purpose is, in fact, reflective of God’s purpose.
I was thinking about whether EoC is good only for third world countries, places like South America where poverty is borne by a great number with conspicuous wealth displayed by a few. I recall South America being the birthplace of Liberation Theology. But what of western countries, even Australia? Could we learn something from EoC principles?
We would like to think our workers are treated well here. Yes, there are Unions and legislated miserly minimum rates of pay, but the single-minded corporate maximisation of profit is increasingly sighted at the expense of workers. 7-Eleven and Dominoes Pizzas easily come to mind as examples of corporate contempt for others.
On the other hand, there are good stories, too. The Bendigo Bank, which facilitates the establishment of community banks around Australia, particularly in regional and remote areas, does have a policy of giving back to its communities. It lists its civic achievements proudly on its website. I doubt it has heard of EoC, but it seems to be espousing its principles.
So, can faith and business, well, do business together? To quote Lawrence, “can faith do more than provide its traditional handout, but instead give people a hand up?”.
I think so. After all, this notion is nothing more than empathy and the applied Christian virtue of showing love for your neighbour. And it makes good business sense, too.
For a short article on Economy of Communion, go to The vulnerable, front and center, John Mundell, Living City March 2017.